Blues Music

Album Review – Nikki Lane’s “Denim & Diamonds”


photo: Jody Domingue

It’s not easy to hold to your principles, in life, and in music especially, where compromises and perverse incentives lurk around every corner. But Nikki Lane has never taken the bait, never come down off the hill she climbed early in both her career and in her life. She committed to staying fiercely independent and refusing to make her way off the pity of any man, and that’s where she remains, forever the Highway Queen.

Entrepreneur and small business owner, fashionista and self-made woman, singer and songwriter, Nikki Lane has staked her claim on being a woman in a man’s world, and on her latest album Denim & Diamonds, she doubles down. Full of affirmations on the importance of autonomy, self-reliance, and hard work as a way to solve or avoid problems, Lane also broaches the subject of love as something that is still important in life, but only when it does not suffocate who you truly are inside.

Nikki Lane comes to music from the fashion world where she worked as a designer in New York and Los Angeles after leaving her native South Carolina. It was while dating a country musician, and later a chance meeting with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys at a flea market where she crossed over to music. Her clothing store “High Class Hillbilly” in Nashville specializes in vintage Western wear, which dovetails with her revivalist country sound that borrows heavily from the Outlaw era and classic rock, especially on this new album.

Denim & Diamonds may feel like a fashion statement, but it also intimates the toughness one has to find in life to be a self-made woman—denim being the fabric manufactured for miners who would wear through inferior materials for britches in no time, and diamonds being the hardest material on Earth, forged through immense pressure.

With a punchy, almost punk delivery, Nikki Lane affirms “I can buy my own damn denim and diamonds” in the title track, establishing that she doesn’t need someone to shower her with sentimentality for a sense of self-worth. “Born Tough” also brings this idea into sharp focus, as do the sentiments of “Try Harder” about not letting yourself off the hook for all the troubles you may face in life. If you believe in what you’re doing, it’s worth the sacrifice, and to persevere.

Of course, striking a fierce sense of independence in life isn’t easy, whether it’s facing adversity in something as cutthroat as the entertainment industry, or guarding your heart against the pitfalls of love. The song “Live/Love” is Nikki Lane trying to square the desire to share intimate feelings with another, while also not wanting to get hurt, or to hurt someone else. Navigating this mine field of complex human emotion is an underlying theme of the album.

In the song “Good Enough,” perhaps Lane is using a bit of sarcasm to illustrate how simply settling for someone or sacrificing yourself for a subpar level of comfort and happiness is just as perilous as trying to go it alone in life and all the rigors that entails.

Produced by Joshua Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, and featuring Queens of the Stone Age members Alain Johannes on guitar, Dean Fertita on organ, and Michael Shuman on bass, Denim & Diamonds definitely takes on a rock aspect that may be deemed unfavorable to some of Lane’s more vintage country fans.

Pedal steel player Matthew Pynn also makes some appearances to inject a little requisite twang between the lines, but country rock is the designation the album deserves, evidenced in some of the record’s biggest songs like the opening track “First High,” and what might be the most addictive of the album’s tracks, the foreboding “Black Widow.”

But despite being more rock, Denim & Diamonds is also one of those albums with a filmy, garbled, almost dingy sound that tries to strike a vintage vibe. Though this approach can work well on some songs, like the wet vocal signal and faraway feel of “Good Enough”—and Nikki’s raspy, smoky voice may not be complimentary to a clean production style either—by the end of the album, the lack of audio clarity can definitely begin to frustrate the ear.

But compared to some previous Nikki Lane songs and albums that relied more on vintage country style as opposed to substance to engage the audience, she takes a step forward in the writing on Denim & Diamonds, imbuing the songs with real-life struggles, forged with wisdom and insight from her own experiences, making the album not just a re-affirmation of the founding principles Nikki Lane set her career on, but also presenting a high water mark when it comes to conveying the reasoning and purpose behind those principles.

Nikki Lane is a unique firebrand in country music, and on Denim & Diamonds she leaves a lasting mark.

7.8/10

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